By Ed Neumann, December 18, 2011
People all over the world commemorate the birth of Christ on Dec. 25, but that was not the original date chosen for this observance.
In fact, in the earliest centuries of our era, it had been placed on a variety of dates. One of the most common of these was Jan. 6, a popular day of pre-Christian festivities and a birth date of two Mediterranean-area gods.
Jan. 6 also marked the water-to-wine miracle at the Nile, and later, per the Catholic Encyclopedia, it was designated for Christ’s baptism and his own wine miracle at Cana.
Most ancient celebrations this time of year, however, were observed at or around the solstice. Recall that solstice means stationary sun, the shortest day of the year when the solar orb rises at its southernmost point and does a stutter-step, as though experiencing a moment of doubt, before resurrecting anew — moving noticeably northward again by Dec. 25.
Many also looked at this date as the rebirth of the sun, which is what led Church Father Cyprian to exclaim, “O how wonderfully acted Providence that on the day the sun was born, Christ should be born!”
Many pre-Christian midwinter festivals were characterized not only by debauchery and excess, but with gift-giving and goodwill. On the evening of Dec. 24 in Alexandria, devotees sang while descending into a shrine.
At dawn on the 25th, they emerged, bearing an effigy of Aeon, often identified with Horus, the infant sun. Circling the shrine seven times, they called out the festal chant, “The Virgin has brought forth! The light waxes!”
Because Dec. 25 was thought to be the birthday of many gods and heroes — including Apollo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Horus, Ishtar, Jesus, Mithra, Osiris, Perseus, Serapis and Theseus — the Roman emperor Aurelian decided to blend all the Nativity celebrations into a single festival, called “The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.”
Mithra, identified early on as Sol Invictus, was said to have 12 followers who were represented by the 12 signs of the zodiac. A hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons baptized initiates, ate a eucharistic meal and even enacted a resurrection scene. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “The well-known solar feast of Natalis Invicti, observed on Dec. 25, has a strong claim of responsibility for our date of Christ’s Nativity.”
Once Christianity was established as the empire’s new official religion, Pope Julius I in the year 354 assimilated Christ’s Mass with the festival of Mithras (Sol) in order to “facilitate the more complete Christianization of the empire.”
Because we know that new religions often came about as reworkings of older myths in circulation at the time, is it possible that borrowed elements of nascent Christianity also constituted heliolatry, or sun worship? Apparently, in the early centuries of our era, many believed just that.
Early Coptic Christians actually equated Jesus with the prototype Osiris, a sun god who, after being sealed in his tomb, resurrected on the third day.
The third century Manichean Christians were known heliolaters and referred to Christ as “the Sun of this world.” There even exists a late third century mosaic of Christo Sole, “Christ the Sun,” beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
And about the year 200, Church Father Tertullian admitted that “from the earliest days, enlightened men
who had examined Christianity pronounced it to be merely a sect of Mithraism … You say we worship the sun, so do you!”
Although many celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25, we should not lose sight of the fact that the original reason for the holiday season had always been the triumphal rebirth of the sun, after which the days grow longer, promising the renewal of life to come.